Radio-tracking Radiated Tortoises – Travel Blog Vol. 4

April 6, 2022

By Brett Bartek

Back to so-called “civilization.” Although a return to the capital of Antananarivo means regular showers and a cheeseburger lunch in a French restaurant, it also means traffic jams, pollution, panhandling, and the overall busy nature that comes with any big city. While in the field, time is regulated by light availability and the heat of the day. Back in ‘Tana we’ve returned to the use of a clock while we start to sift through data in our hotel room.

Brett and Tantily do their best to entertain children of the host community of the Radiated Tortoise reintroduction site.

When we were still in the field, the main sources of entertainment for Lance and me and the members of our host community were the inherent cultural differences that exist between us. We were able to laugh at each other’s unusual (to us) customs. There were always rotating groups of kids and adults outside the small building in which we slept, patiently waiting each morning for us to rise so they could watch the idiosyncrasies of our morning routine. And, in the afternoon, when we returned from the forest, they were again there to observe us.

With no electricity or phones that have become so integral to our entertainment back home, Lance and I got the same entertainment from them. We watched in amusement as they used chicken feathers as “Q-tips®,” or bet how many cactus fruit they might eat in one sitting. We shared our photos with them, and sifted through our field guides, learning what animals they regularly see and what the local names for them were.

An Ocelot gecko (Paroedura picta) was one of the many exciting finds on Brett and Lance’s nocturnal ventures into the surrounding forest.

In the evenings there, Lance and I would find mouse lemurs and chameleons in the trees, and count the number of shooting stars and satellites that were visible under the intense light of the Milky Way.

But, now we’re back in ‘Tana, scrolling through our feeds, trying to figure out what’s going on in Ukraine, why Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, and just keeping up with the every-day dramas of the “First World.” We have a TV in our hotel room, which does have MTV as a channel option. Luckily, we have scheduled some time in the Perinet rainforest of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park where we can escape city life for at least two more days before starting the process of getting back to the United States.

This trip has been hard. Really hard. It’s been full of sickness and bad roads. Broken down cars and dehydration. This trip has been full of general discomfort, but as field biologists, Lance and I are professionals at being uncomfortable, and neither of us would have traded this experience for the world.

Performing Radiated Tortoise conservation work in Madagascar’s unique spiny forest is an experience Brett and Lance are not soon to forget.

April 10, 2022

By Brett Bartek

For those that have followed along with our journey, I hope that you have enjoyed reading about our experiences in Madagascar. We certainly have had an amazing time visiting some very special places and getting to work with some fantastic people in the fight to conserve the Radiated Tortoise and the forests in which they live. If this is the first of our blog posts you are reading, I urge you to seek out the rest before finishing this one, to truly appreciate these musings. READ Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.

The following is a collection of short anecdotes and thoughts that Lance and I recorded throughout our trip and compile as we sit in the airport on our way back to the U.S. These did not make it into any other blog posts, but we thought they were amusing and worth sharing.

People coming together for the preservation of turtles and tortoises is what Turtle Survival Alliance is all about.

As I’m sure you are aware, projects of this size have a lot of moving parts and cost a lot of money. Although grants help tremendously, a large amount of the funding for a project like this comes from kind-hearted people like you.

If you have enjoyed reading along so far, I now have a challenge for you. If, while reading the list below, something makes you smile, I challenge you to donate $1. If something makes you laugh out loud, I challenge you to donate $3. If anything makes you physically gasp in horror, I challenge you to donate $5.

The cost of this single adult beverage equates to the same amount of funds needed to equip a Radiated Tortoise with a Passive Integrated Transponder (microchip) for the duration of the tortoise’s life. In this photo of coauthor Lance Paden supporting a Drink Beer. Save Turtles.® event, the proceeds from the sale of this can of beer DOES directly fund turtle and tortoise conservation! Photo: Maranda Miller

By the end of this list I expect your total to be less than the cost of a venti pumpkin spice latte and some avocado toast from <insert your favorite coffee shop here>. That little bit of money could pay the salary of our guides into the forest, or batteries for a GPS unit, or maybe even a sacrificial zebu—all of which this project depends upon for success.

Okay, enough begging. On to the list…

1. As Top Gear has shown us, there isn’t much that will stop a Toyota Hilux from running, but we have found there are a lot of things that will stop it from running down the road.

The rural dirt roads of southern Madagascar were fraught with peril—for the team’s Toyota Hilux.

2. After six days in the field, there’s nothing better than a cold beverage, a shower, and a western-style toilet.

3. Must every plant be so darn spikey?!

4. Madagascar: “What are seatbelts?”

5. Madagascar: “What are roads?”

6. Always wear closed-toed shoes to the bathroom. You never know when an 8-inch centipede will visit you while you’re at your most vulnerable.

Yes, almost everything in the spiny forest is spiny, and Radiated Tortoises find refuge within those protective spines.

7. I haven’t showered in five days—I stink. But so does Lance, so it’s fine.

8. Nothing makes you feel smaller or more insignificant than peeing under the night sky in a remote part of the world.

9. Madagascar is an overlander’s dream.

10. Pro tip: Don’t forget to bring emergency toilet paper when working in the spiny forest.

11. I’m not entirely sure what they are laughing at, but there’s a safe bet that it’s at us.

Most activities in southern Madagascar cease under the brutal mid-day sun. Even the smallest shade structure provides the team respite.

12. When it’s 105 °F (41 °C), nothing hits the spot like eating two dozen cactus fruit.

13. Although it’s an important reminder of where my food comes from, I’m not going to miss watching my dinner get killed in front of me every day.

14. What part of the chicken is that? I hope it’s not the head.

15. Nothing beats a cup of hot rice tea at the end of a long, hot field day—except any other drink.

16. If you see steam coming off the rice tea when it’s 85 °F (29 °C) outside, maybe don’t take a sip just yet.

The baobab tree, sometimes called the “Tree of Life,” is unarguably the most iconic tree of Madagascar. Ironically, the country’s most famous (and endemic) tree is seen here surrounded by invasive prickly-pear cacti, whose fruits the team readily dined upon.

17. Here’s a list of my favorite spiny forest plants: baobab. End.

18. Culture shock is watching a six-year-old boy roll and smoke a cigarette.

19. Never trust a cricket in Madagascar. Those suckers bite! Hard!

20. Even in Madagascar, the party always moves towards the kitchen.

21. I wonder if Shazam would recognize this song?

No matter who you are or where you live, watching a drone map critical habitat is a captivating experience.

22. After seeing a ton of kids in trees, and a scene of what looked to be two older brothers tying up their younger brother, all I can think is: kids are the same all over the world.

23. Wait…? Is this chicken on my plate the same chicken that the cat killed last night?! You didn’t answer fast enough for me to trust you!

24. A saying we have utilized on many occasions has been, “don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to.”

25. Pro tip: Bring more Cipro (antibiotic) than your doctor thinks you will need.

26. Rush hour in downtown ‘Tana makes Bourbon Street in New Orleans look like a quaint, wholesome, family vacation destination.

Encountering zebu cattle being herded down Madagascar’s rural roads is not an uncommon sight or temporary roadblock.

27. In the U.S. you drive on the right side of the road, in Australia you drive on the left side of the road, in Madagascar you drive wherever you can.

28. Author’s revision: Maybe don’t wear closed-toed shoes to the bathroom, just in case a giant spider runs into your shorts while you’re at your most vulnerable.

29. How do you think TSA explains a sacrificial zebu on their taxes?

30. I never gave much thought as to how much I appreciated Q-tips® until during a community meeting I saw a man catch a passing chicken just to pluck a wing feather off to use for the same purpose.

31. A phrase I’m unlikely to say anytime soon: “Man, I could really go for some reasonably well-milled rice!”

Lance enjoys the serenity of a southern Madagascar sunset at the team’s basecamp.

32. Our motto in Madagascar has been: “It’s fine, everything is fine.” We jokingly reassure ourselves with this phrase, generally in reference to things that would very much have been a concern back in the U.S. An example would be when our taxi driver’s Mitsubishi sounded like the transmission may fall out at any moment while crossing the mountains on our way to Andasibe. The typical Malagasy response to the concerned looks on our faces is, “It’s okay.” Usually they’re right. We’ve seen surprisingly few accidents on the roads.

33. The definition of true nirvana is being able to ignore the 10 flies on your face during your mid-day nap.

34. I’m not sure what the payload capacity is for a Toyota Hilux, but it is more than the weight of 20 people and ~500 pounds of equipment.

35. Madagascar has some amazing engineers. I’m amazed at how a bridge made with so few materials can hold the weight of a Mitsubishi Pajero and four passengers.

THIS is what it’s all about—keeping wild Radiated Tortoises wild.

So, how did you do? Ready and willing to make a donation to the conservation of Radiated Tortoises and others like them? We appreciate it!

Donate Today!

All photos credited to Brett Bartek and Lance Paden, unless otherwise noted.


  1. Karen DeBraal on July 21, 2022 at 10:18 am

    Thank you for your work and stories. What you do is appreciated. And I love reading about the animals of Madagascar.

  2. Laura Bottaro on July 21, 2022 at 1:33 pm

    Good to see you Brett! And it looks like you are making a difference while having the time of your life. Stay safe and welcome home!! L

    • Brett B. on July 22, 2022 at 8:48 am

      Thanks Laura! We have to give most of the credit to the team in Madagascar! Those guys and gals are awesome! It was such a great trip and I can’t wait to get back.

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